A question of scale

Some of the most interesting inventions I have seen in the last several years are those that work by ‘down-scaling’ ideas that are otherwise unoriginal.

My friend Kannan’s work at Microspin (http://www.microspin.co.in/) is one such example. Kannan has lived an interesting life, in which the only token gesture to conventionality seems to be a degree from IIT (from where he graduated in 1988). (As one of our common friends put it, Kannan has the shadiest LinkedIn profile of all time: 4 current positions, 0 past positions, and an occupation of “parallel entrepreneur”!). Kannan’s passion is cotton; at one point of time, he worked with an NGO that was helping small cotton farmers and craftspeople improve their lot. Cotton is a rich man’s business, and the business model is rooted in the colonial past, when cotton grown in India would be shipped off to Lancaster to become thread and cloth. This separation, of where cotton is grown and where it is processed, has defined the direction of innovation in the cotton industry for many decades. Cotton is baled (stacked into cuboids which are compressed for easy transportation), sent to a factory, where they are un-baled, carded, spun, woven, dyed and made into a finished product. All of these steps are heavily mechanized, but the problem is that the machines that do these activities are all built for mills that handle the yarn in tonnes. The sheer scale of the machinery simply shuts out the little guy – who grows the cotton, or who preserves the traditional knowledge of working the cloth – and these people are at the mercy of the big man who owns the machines, for no other reason other than that they cannot muster the capital to buy the equipment.

Kannan’s research, over the last two decades, has revolved around ‘miniaturizing’ the cotton machines, reducing them from behemoths that cost millions of dollars to little creatures that cost tens of thousands of dollars, making them affordable to smaller cooperatives of farmers. So far, he has been remarkably successful in his endeavours to scale down the industry. But there is an interesting side-effect of his work. When farmers started using his machines, they were able to process the cotton close to home. So there was no need for baling – compressing the cotton into bales – and transporting them far away. One result of this is that the ‘brutal’ operations (in Kannan’s words) that cotton undergoes in a typical mill is replaced by a much gentler set of operations, and this brings out the ‘character’ of the cotton. Using Kannan’s machines, therefore, artisans and farmers have been able to recreate the textures of cloth that India was famous for in the 17th century, and invent a fabric whose softness has made it a favourite of top-line designers worldwide. This fabric is called “malkha” (a portmanteau of malmal and khadi) and I am the proud owner of some of this material.

I saw another interesting innovation recently that made me think about Kannan; it’s called ‘m-work’. Consider an activity like Google’s ‘local mapping’ – an operation typically carried out by special vehicles that go around a city, taking photographs of storefronts and city signs, so that Google can incorporate them into maps. A start-up I read about some time back decided to do this in a very innovative way. They made it possible for autorickshaw drivers to take cell-phone photographs of the roads around them when they were waiting for rides, and created a system to compensate them for these tagged photographs. So an auto driver with 5 minutes to spare can earn some quick money on the side, exploiting his local knowledge for some map-maker’s sake. Last I heard, the same guys were extending this concept to traffic updates, too – someone caught in traffic sends a message with geographic locale information, and they get a small compensation.

This is ‘miniaturization’ of work, with the same thought-process as behind Kannan’s project. Why does a career have to be a year-to-year affair? Or even a daily one? When you have five minutes to spare, can you convert those five minutes into something productive and revenue-generating, even if you are basically an unskilled worker? If the answer is yes (and these guys proved it is), you have a setup that not only adds an immense amount of time to the labour pool, but also creates new sub-cultures and sub-innovations. Which is where all the fun is.

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